On Senna and Ingesting Benefits


Over the last couple days, I have been drinking an herbal tea that contains Senna Leaf (Cassia Angustifolia), which a roommate had brought in with a large variety of other tea leaves. The front of the box was marked in all caps: REGULAR STRENGTH and DIETARY SUPPLEMENT. I had expected that like many other teas, the latter description was simply a palliative term that attracted individuals looking for anything that mentions “diet” as a means for weight loss.

However, after waking up with intense abdominal pain this morning and several rounds of diarrhea, I realized that I was not shortchanged on the concept of DIETARY SUPPLEMENT.

I have always kept an interest in oral supplements: as a child, I would start ingesting whatever new age pills that my stepmother stocked every few months; St. John’s Wort sticks in my mind. With the odd name and the very ambiguous benefits that the bottle implied (as some kind of treatment for depression), I became an optimistic skeptic for the supplement and others. A few years ago, I found online communities revolving around these treatments and member’s own cocktails for a supposed healthier life. The term was “Nootropics”, a fancy word for cognitive enhancers. Not only was St. John’s Wort the tip of a very large iceberg, it was at times barely registered as a legitimate substance compared to others.

To ingest selected parts of nature and gain physical or mental benefits — is that not the dream of an age (more than two thousand years old) seeking immediate effects over long-term processes? And it continues to be a dream: read into a nootropic substance long enough and all are validated and invalidated at the same time, creating enough doubt that I don’t fly out of my room to purchase a couple bottles, but instead keep reading about new developments in studies and individual stories.

Start from the benefits and drawbacks of St. John’s Wort (via NCIH):

“St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), a plant that grows in the wild, has been used for centuries for mental health conditions. It’s widely prescribed for depression in Europe.”

One starts with validation: “widely prescribed in Europe.” The dream appears! Society has deemed this ingestable substance as worth prescribing, worth speaking of in the same sentence as a treatment for something.

“St. John’s wort isn’t consistently effective for depression. Do not use it to replace conventional care or to postpone seeing your health care provider.”

And then the dream dissipates: “not consistently effective.” For all of its wide acceptance, studies put the supplement just above a placebo. And then:

“St. John’s wort limits the effectiveness of many prescription medicines.”

So at its worst, St. John’s Wort does do something; it can have the surprising effect of dampening the benefits of pharmaceutical medicines. And that’s the magic of nootropics: it does everything and nothing and sometimes exacerbates. It is akin to the old gods and the new: vengeful, merciful, loving, and most of all: ambivalent.

Despite my push-pull relationship with nootropics, I am still fascinated with the dream. So I ingest psyllium husk dietary fiber and take multivitamins and take laxatives: I want that immediate effect, and I know that these do something physical. I can feel my insides crawl and settle, my urine change colors. I am fascinated with my changing self, my changing excretions because of these supplements. They are beyond magic: they are real, passing through my body and taking their toll, positive or negative. They are the elementals of earth, allowing me to have one iota of understanding of the unknowable: my physicality, my mentality.